In terms of evaluating starting pitchers for the fantasy baseball season, owners have patiently waited for Masahiro Tanaka to sign with a major-league team. Ballpark and competition matter when evaluating players, so now that Tanaka inked a seven-year, $155 million deal with the New York Yankees, we can proceed to the more important stage of determining probable performance and probable value.
Of course, the most obvious obstacle hindering most fantasy analysis regarding Tanaka is the switch from the Nippon Professional Baseball league to the major leagues. The right-hander twirled a sparkling 1.27 ERA in his final season in Japan, but it’s unclear how that will translate to the American League. Furthermore, how do we know where to draft him and what kind of peripheral statistics can we expect? He’s bound to get glossed up by the hype machine in the coming months, especially since he will be wearing pinstripes, but fantasy owners realize they must trim away the fat to get at some core truth.
I’m not going to pretend I can project Tanaka’s overall performance in 2014. No matter what, he’ll remain kind of an enigma heading into the season. However, I do feel we can glean some important relational information by comparing him to how owners treated Yu Darvish when he stormed the league a couple seasons ago.
Beyond run prevention — which is slightly unpredictable — fantasy owners must understand Tanaka and Darvish are different pitchers with varying skill sets. Tanaka isn’t projected to strikeout nearly as many batters as Darvish, which isn’t a huge knock on Tanaka because Darvish has been compiling historic strikeout numbers, but there’s a fairly significant gap between their strikeout rates. Drew Silva notes Tanaka owned a 7.8 K/9 strikeout rate in his final season in the NPB. Darvish, on the other hand, boasted a 10.7 K/9 strikeout rate. Thus, fantasy owners should expect Tanaka to hover around the league-average strikeout mark. I say that because Darvish essentially replicated his strikeout rate in his first major-league season. If we replicate that trend with Tanaka — which admittedly isn’t perfect — we’re looking at a strikeout rate slightly above the league average of 7.19 K/9 from last season.
Pinning down his exact strikeout rate isn’t going to happen with any certainty. After all, he may have compiled modest strikeout numbers last year, but some scouts believe he now possesses one of the best (if not the best) splitter in the league. And that’s a nasty tool to miss bats. One could also underscore the fact that hitters in the MLB strikeout more than in the NPB. Perhaps that’s another reason to expect his strikeout numbers to jump from his time in the NPB. However, we can reasonably expect Tanaka to come well short of Darvish’s strikeout numbers and whiff percentage, and when drafting an unknown quantity, it’s best to draft with conservative expectations rather than projecting increased strikeouts for nebulous reasons.
Tanaka had a 1.4 BB/9 walk rate in his final season in Japan, so it seems likely that fantasy owners will rely on the right-hander to have an elite ERA and WHIP rather than to provide elite strikeouts. Again, we have to deal with the uncertainty of projecting rates to the majors, but only four qualified starts had a superior walk rate to Tanaka’s 1.4 BB/9. They were Cliff Lee, David Price, Adam Wainwright and Bartolo Colon — all of whom were top-20 fantasy starters, aside from Price who dealt with some injury issues.
I’m nervous to project Tanaka as a guaranteed top-20 starter because he’s not only dealing with a jump to the majors. He’s also transitioning to the difficult AL East and pitching the majority of his games at Yankee Stadium, which isn’t exactly a pitcher-friendly ballpark.
The park factor for runs has fluctuated a bit throughout the years, but since Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, it’s been a hitter-friendly ballpark and has been a home run haven. Without elite strikeout potential, the transition from the NPB to the AL East and Yankee Stadium makes me a bit skittish.
That’s not to suggest he won’t find success. Scouts and the numbers convincingly argue Masahiro Tanaka should be a quality major-league pitcher, with some projecting him to be a number-two starter for the Yankees this season. The real question becomes how should one value him and where can one expect him to be drafted.
Upon entering the league in 2012, Darvish was (on average) the 34th starting pitcher drafted and the 115th overall player off the board on draft day. He was ultimately the 29th-ranked starter at the end of the season, so that valuation was actually rather accurate. Given Tanaka signed for significantly more money and will play in the largest television market, his hype heading into the 2014 season should exceed that of Darvish. At least, that’s my working hypothesis. Meaning, I expect Tanaka to be drafted higher than the 34th starting pitcher this spring in most leagues.
Pay attention to Tanaka’s ADP numbers as soon as they become available. I suspect he’ll be around 20-to-25 on the starting pitcher board. Looking to last year’s performance, that’s evaluating Tanaka to be roughly equivalent to someone like Mat Latos, Clay Buchholz and Homer Bailey. That feels decent, based upon the information and scouting reports we have available.
Masahiro Tanaka will be an unknown quantity this spring, no matter how many offseason articles are written about NPB-to-MLB projection systems or in-depth scouting reports. The best we can attempt to do is understand how the most-recent Japanese stud pitcher (Darvish) was valued in fantasy leagues and extrapolate how that may or may not change for Tanaka. Furthermore, fantasy owners must understand they’re different pitchers, and owners drafting Tanaka likely won’t be acquiring an elite strikeout machine. His value will primarily lie in his WHIP and ERA. That’s still plenty valuable, but if his transition to a difficult AL East and hitter-friendly ballpark has a couple bumps and bruises early on, he won’t have that strikeout rate on which to fall back.
Moral of the story: don’t overreach on Tanaka. Understand his strengths and weaknesses and value him accordingly. He’s a lottery ticket in a way, but reaching and selecting a pitching lottery ticket in the first 10-to-15 starters isn’t exactly sound business practice for fantasy owners.
Print This Post